Book review: The Railway

From the New Statesman

The Railway

Hamid Ismailov Harvill Secker, 224pp, ‘12.99

ISBN 1843431610

Reviewed by Craig Murray

Like almost all decent Uzbek literature, Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway has been banned in Uzbekistan. It is not a political work, but it presents a kaleidoscopic view of the extraordinary ethnic, cultural and political mix of Uzbek society across a period ranging from about 1880 to about 1980. It consists of a series of tales structured loosely around a remote village, Gilas, and the effect on the lives of the inhabitants of the railway built through it.

This mixture is, like Uzbekistan’s ethnic composition, so rich as to be almost indescribable. However, the two main strands are the folklore of the Asiatic peoples of the steppe, desert and mountain, and the subversive literature of communist states, with their suppressed individualism. We have mythic stories of heroic nomads performing impossible physical feats alongside the tale of Ulmas Greeneyes, nicknamed Mullah, a naIf swept along by events beyond his comprehension, who becomes a cog in both Stalin’s and Hitler’s interchangeable machines. Ismailov’s text is itself a product of Uzbekistan’s remarkable history. Discernible influences range from Omar Khayyam to Bulgakov, all overlain with the country’s cultured and tolerant version of Islam.

Indeed, Ismailov’s writing appears deeply infused with a rich heritage of Sufic thought. The translator, Robert Chandler, has brilliantly reproduced the rolling rhythms of the incan-tatory, mesmeric prose. Some of these stories could have been told by Scheherazade. Ismailov is a skilled craftsman, completely aware of the tradition on which he draws, and the book is peppered with scholarly allusion, but brilliantly done in a manner not distracting to the uninitiated. If you are familiar with central Asia and its literature, you will find the foreword masterly and will wallow in the footnotes. If not, I would advise you to ignore both and just drink in the novel.

The society Ismailov paints is recognisably still the Uzbek society of today – it made me yearn to go back. While the novel makes no direct criticism of the current regime, many of the incidents described, often casually, are features of modern Uzbekistan. In particular, The Railway details the sexual blackmail of women by the police, the huge corruption in the state cotton industry and the capriciousness – sometimes lazy, sometimes vicious – of the government (a poet is executed).

Thanks to the human-rights campaigns of the past couple of years, far more people in Britain now know something of Uzbekistan. Ismailov’s novel will further advance our understanding of this fascinating land. It is a work of rare beauty – an utterly readable, compelling book.

Craig Murray is Britain’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan